5 favourite places in the Empordà

I want to get away to a warm and sunny place!

Ever sat looking out on a dull gray day, dreaming of blue skies and sunny warm days by the Mediterranean?   You just ache for blue skies and a warm sun but you don’t want to be in a city. You want to breathe fresh air and walk by the sea.

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Catalunya is so much more than just Barcelona.   There are many beautiful regions and one of my favourites is the Empordà. The name comes from  Empúries (Empòrion in Old Greek or Emporiae in Latin) which means “the markets”.

There is the Alt Empordà and the Baix Empordà which mean the high and the low. Figueres is the capitol of the Alt Empordà and this is the area I am talking about today.

Salut, salut noble Empordà !,
Salut, salut palau del vent !
portem el cor content, i una cançó !

Greetings noble Empordà!    Greetings palace of wind!  We bring a happy heart and a song!

Joan Maragall

  1. Sant Nicolau near Ordis

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The sanctuary at Sant Nicolau is a wonderful place to sing!

I discovered this wonderful place 5 years ago after doing a web search for a cottage to stay in at New Year that had a log burning stove and accepted dogs.  I have been here countless times since and never tire of the peace and beauty and friendly welcome. It is in the countryside, near Figueres and close to the coast too.

Sant Nicolau is run by friends of mine but I am quite independently recommending it as a lovely healing place to spend a week or two.  The owners Helen and Francis are generous kind and interesting people who came over from the UK 11 years ago and have been running their holiday cottage business ever since.

  1. Sant Martí de Empúries

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Standing inside the old Empuries you are transported back in time to the days when visitors arrived by ship!

From Sant Nicolau it’s a short drive to the coast near Escala to the  village of Sant Martí de Empúries. A short walk along the coastal path and you see the ruins of Greek and Roman settlements which existed side by side with incredible views over the bay. The beach here is lovely for swimming and the walk along to Escala is breath-taking. The Greeks and the Romans chose it for a reason – it is a special place.

Here Rose Macaulay writes of Empúries in her book Fabled Shore: From the Pyrenees to Portugal.

Across a sandy stretch of land to the north the tumbled ruinous little pile of San Marti climbs its rocky hill; beneath it sleeps forgotten the old, the original Paleopolis. In front of Ampurias the sea whispers and creams; its tang breathes about the ghostly city like a song”

Rose Macaulay visited this coast in the 1940’s, a woman alone driving a battered and slightly unreliable car in the days when women didn’t do that sort of thing, especially not in Franco’s Spain. There were petrol shortages and she had boys throwing tomatoes at her but she accepted it all in good humour. Her book is still available and is a great read if you love history and travel writing. Thanks to my sister Penelope for discovering it when she was visiting the area.

  1. Llançà and Port de la Selva

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Sharing lunch with Bonnie by the sea

I have a very soft spot for both Llançà and Port de la Selva.  Llançà is on the coast not far from the French border and it is where I went with my dog Bonnie on the day after my other dog Blue died. We went out for our first ‘just us two’ walk and ended up in Llançà having lunch. I chose a restaurant looking out over the bay – it was a lovely sunny day in late May  – and having asked Bonnie what she would like, I ordered steak and chips. I cut it down the middle and we shared it between us. Bear in mind that I am vegetarian and hadn’t eaten steak for over 20 years but it was a good meal and a bonding experience. I believe that meat eaten with mindfulness can sometimes form part of my diet.

Port de la Selva is a lovely village just further along the coast on the edge of Cap de Creus. I stayed there for four days early in my new relationship and always thought it a perfect place for a honeymoon. Lovely cafes, beautiful coves, rosemary-scented walks along the coast and a bay that reminds me strangely of Scotland. There is a lovely walk up to the abbey of Sant Pere de Rodes.

  1. Aiguamolls de Empordà

Aiguamolls de L'Emporda
photo thanks to my beautiful niece Emma Thomson

Of all my favourite places this almost is my most favourite.  Birds!  And a long peaceful walk down to a wide sandy beach. Aiguamolls translates as marshland and this is a protected nature reserve.  At least 327 species of birds make their home here and it is protected only through the determination of ordinary people who fought against developers in the 1970s who wanted to drain it and use it for building. To win against developers is an amazing achievement as here in Catalonia/Spain, developers have many powerful political friends.

I saw a kingfisher here once when walking along the side of a stream. There are storks too nesting on the tree tops.

5.Starlings at Santa Margarida

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there are few things more heart stirring than a murmuration of starlings

Santa Margarida  is not the most beautiful nor the most interesting place in this area because, like Roses, it is over developed and stuffed full of flats and tourists in the summer. But in the winter months I usually find myself drawn over there in the late afternoon to see the murmurations of starlings. As soon as I see groups flying overhead I stop the car and listen for the distinctive sound of starlings chattering as they roost. For some reason they like this area and so, I do too!   Watching them from the pavement, my heart is always leaping in joy at the sight.  It always surprises me how many people just walk by, without looking up and with no apparent curiosity about what I am doing. Just a mad British woman – probably they have seen too many of those!

Have you been to Catalunya and explored beyond the edges of Barcelona? If you have any favourite places drop a note  in the comments and help more people discover hidden corners of this region.

Don’t forget to share this post if you know anyone who is coming to visit this region. I would love more people to visit these special places.

 

 

What exactly is a Balneari?

One of the most exciting things I discovered after moving to Catalunya was that there are lots of places where  hot mineral water springs directly from the earth.  A spa built around this spring source  is called a Balneari.

This natural mineral healing water is sometimes as hot as 74 degrees centigrade and the mineral composition varies from place to place.

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The waters are warm and inviting

The Romans made good use of the local mineral waters and I am sure the Arabs did too but I believe that so long as there have been humans living in the area, they would have been enjoying the healing and relaxing properties of the water.

I imagine it goes back to the beginning of civilisation.

Early on I decided to visit as many mineral spas as possible and to write about the experience here on The Catalan Way.  I  have a dream of writing a guide to the Hot Springs of Catalunya which would mean I have to do a tour every year to review each and every one.  Bliss!

I haven’t managed to visit them all yet even once, but slowly and surely I am working my way through a list of about 21.  Some of them are not yet developed and can be found in wild and wonderful places.

Last weekend I went with my friend Cristina to try out Balneari Titus which is halfway between Arenys de Mar and Caldetes on the Mediterranean coast

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Practicalities first

You can get there by train from Barcelona on the coastal route to Sant Pol. Get off at Caldes d’Estrac and walk to the Balneari. It takes about 20 minutes.

If you drive you can see the entrance easily from the NII. Coming from Barcelona go through Caldes D’Estrac and when you see a little mountain on your left there is a roundabout and the lane to the balneari is sign-posted. There is plenty of free parking.

We booked for a basic circuit of the waters plus a session in the steam room(hammam)

The basic circuit costs 20 euros and we paid 10 euros extra for the hammam.

Things to take with you

Bathing hat, bathing costume, towel, wrap, flip-flops and toiletries, bottle of water.

Some places provide towels and wraps, Some require hats. Some offer free water. These are the sort of things I notice and will include in every balneari review.

What happens in a balneari?

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They are all different which is one of the pleasures of trying out new ones.

In general you will be going around a series of pools and special showers with water jets and letting the healing properties of the water do its magic on your body and spirit.

It is important to know, and I wasn’t sure of this at first,  is that although many people visit balnearis because they have been sent by their doctor for treatments, they are also just places to relax and to restore your vital energy through the healing qualities of the water. You bathe your body, the waters cleanse and nourish your soul.

Balneari Titus

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Titus is a small balneari close to the sea only about 30 km from Barcelona. There don’t have a large  choice  in terms of pools and showers but it was a pleasant surprise.

In the main room there is a smallish pool, a jacuzzi and a corridor of little water sprays that blast you with cold mineral water as you walk along a path of pebbles.

The steam room was separate and as we walked there we passed several interesting rooms for doing steam inhalations  and massages and individual bathes.  Look at the web site and you will see there are many extras you can try, but we didn’t.

I like to be free when I am in a spa and they do vary in this respect. Sometimes you are at the mercy of a system which guides you from one thing to another.  I like to be shown around at the beginning and then left to my own devices. Titus came out somewhere in the middle here – we were left alone to enjoy the pool and jacuzzi but we were also told when to visit the hammam and how long to stay there.

We were incredibly lucky as there was no-one else using the balneari at all. We had the pool totally to ourselves.   When we were taken to the hammam I was disappointed that we were only given 10 minutes to relax there.   The steam room itself was clean and pleasant with a shower inside.

We were also told when to use the jacuzzi and the staff member put it on for us. I have no idea how long we were in there, it felt like half an hour but must have been less. This was almost the best part of the whole visit. The water didn’t smell of chlorine as some jacuzzis do. It was comfortable and the sprays were neither too strong nor too weak. We both entered a dream world and started singing mantras and dancing under the water. I am not a jacuzzi fan normally but this one was lovely.

Then we were able to return to the main pool and spend time there doing water massage and floating and relaxing.   Someone popped their head in to tell us our time was up but it didn’t feel pushy or intrusive.  We had been there just over one and a half hours in total.

The water at Titus is high in sodium chlorides and bicarbonates. I only judge water by how it makes me feel and what effect it has on my skin.  On both counts I would say this water is excellent. I felt relaxed but not drained, my skin and hair were soft and still are three days later.  The previous week I had been in bed with a bad cold and the spa helped me make a full recovery.

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To sum up

Cons

-Compared to other balnearis Titus is expensive. 30 euros was a lot for a small installation which doesn’t provide towels or wraps or anything free to drink. The time in the Hamman was far too short and 10 euros was too much to pay for this extra.

-There is only one shower for women to use at the end.  As we were alone this wasn’t a big problem but if there had been even just two more people it would have been annoying.

-There was no free water available although there was a vending machine. It is important to drink when in a balneari so I thought this was a bit mean.

Pros

-The staff were quiet, helpful and friendly. I hadn’t taken a wrap as I assumed they would provide one but when I asked they gave me a dressing gown for no extra charge.

-They are open all year round apart from the first two weeks of January

-The water has a soft gentle cleansing quality and the temperature is perfect. It emerges from the nearby hill at 39 degrees centigrade.

-The pool room is small but well designed and there is a window with a sea view.  When the outdoor pool is open you can walk there from this room through the garden.

-The jacuzzi was fabulous.

Would I go again?

Yes I probably would if I wanted somewhere close to home and if I thought it would be quiet again. The price is a bit high for what is offered so I won’t rush back  but I would be happy to visit again one day.

If you want to read about a past visit to one of my favourite balnearis go here

I am hoping to visit at least two more balnearis in the next month and will let you know what they are like and how they compare to Titus. If you don’t want to miss my reviews of the hot spring spas then do join my email list on the top right of this page to get the posts as soon as I write them!  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skiing at Christmas

We have come away for Christmas!

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It was no easy task but we were helped by the fact that the Resident Adolescent is working in Carrefour and only has two days free.

I have written before about my struggles with Catalan Christmas and the family rituals that are expected here so I won’t go into it again but I do need to say that when I write  ‘we have come away for christmas’ it is written with a flourish.

By the way, I am coming to a far greater understanding of how incredibly difficult it is to create Christmas rituals with a new partner from a different culture. We have tried to include everything from both our worlds – beating the Tió, Christmas carols, Christmas tree, Christmas stockings, roast veggie dinner, Escudella i carn d’olla, Sant Esteve, Boxing Day, turrons, Christmas pudding, Christmas cards, and so on.

The result?  Often it is just exhausting, frustrating and perplexing.

We came away early on Christmas morning and I hadn’t realised the important of opening presents on Christmas Eve so had gone to bed. I wanted to bring the presents with us but my partner didn’t realise the important of opening them on Christmas Day so said we should leave them at home to open when we get back.  Just one of many misunderstandings.

But coming away helps a lot. We are in a new place with no expectations or obligations.  We came to the Pyranees to a place called Font Romeu which is officially in France but if you ask any Catalan they will say it is in Catalunya Nord.   We are staying in a small hotel called Hotel Le Romarin.  It is simple, family run, friendly and comfortable.  Clean with no frills. Lovely views. Good wifi in the lounge area.

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Yesterday was Christmas Day and it was surprising how many other people had the same idea to get away and go skiing.

I don’t know how to ski – I have tried twice and enjoyed it but after an hour had enough of falling over and struggling to get up. As it was Christmas I went along yesterday to the ski station up high and I spent a few hours sitting in the warm cafeteria watching other people glide gracefully down the slopes. Ski resorts are funny places, not at all what I imagined in my dreams. A bit like camp sites they have a tendency to attract clutter and signs telling you what not to do. It must be wonderful to take the lift up to the top and be in the white clean snow-scene then to zig-zag competently downhill.  But the lower part is where the snow is dirty, children are screaming and plastic cups and crisp packets line the edges of the forest.

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Today I stayed in the village  and had my Boxing Day walk up to visit the Hermitage of Font Romeu. It turns out to be on yet another of the ways that lead to Santiago de Compostella.

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Romeu means pilgrim in Catalan so Font Romeu is the fountain of the pilgrim.  They found a 12th Century statue carved in wood of the Black Virgin near here which is kept in the Hermitage until September 8th when it is carried in a parade down to the church at Odeillo.  If I want to see it then I must go there.

Black virgins are an important feature of Catalan spiritual life. One of the most famous is the Black Virgin of Montserrat.  Of course there are many stories of the black virgin being the mother goddess from a much earlier pre christian age. Here is an interesting site about the Black Madonna.

I have started my training for doing the Camino de Santiago in the spring but I need to get a bit more serious about it. Today’s walk was just over 6km and at that rate I’ll need a year to complete the pilgrimage.

 

 

Tren dels Llacs

Last weekend we took the Tren dels Llacs from Lleida to Pobla de Segur in the Pyranees. It leaves at 10.30 am and so we stayed overnight in Lleida

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It is a trip I have wanted to do for years and finally it happened. You can go during the week but it is an ordinary train and there is no time to stop at the other end. On Saturdays they run a tourist train – it’s a beautiful old one with compartments – and you have a few hours to explore Pobla de Segur

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the beautiful old steam train is a work of art

It wasn’t expensive, 27 euros return for each person, and they took great care of everyone with free gifts, a couple of funny men who moved through the carriages making people laugh (not me of course – too British!)  and a stop-off on the way home for a glass of wine and a pastry with escalivada.

I took a lot of photos and here are some of them – including the train toilet which was very wonderful compared to the ones we have now. 
Modern trains have tiny toilets
 
electronic locks on the doors giving you no sense of privacy or security
 
you often can’t find how to flush it

and the actual toilet no longer gives you the pleasing feeling of the tracks thundering by straight down the hole

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remember old corridors?


There is a view from the window – which you can open!!!  See above.
Anyway, enough about the toilet, though I did like it – here is the corridor. It is a proper one making you squeeze your tummy in to let anyone past

And you can stand there with the window open and gaze out

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remembering looking out the window?
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Babcock & Wilcox

When you go between carriages there are those lovely in-between wobbly bits where again you can see the tracks rushing by
 
Right, now we get to the reason for the trains name – The Lakeland Train

We passed through tunnels and crossed bridges and passed numerous lakes

At Pobla de Segur there was a reception committee with a trumpet.
The doors opened inwards which made it feel better when hanging out the window – I love windows that open – who changed them in modern trains?

On the way back we sat in the restaurant car – yes they have that too – and watched it all again but from the other direction

Lovely day, lovely trip and I would highly recommend it. 
If you would like to learn more about the Tren dels Llacs and a lot more about the history of the line then take a look here.  I first heard about the train on the web site Iberian Nature which is also well worth a look.

A Walk around Ciutadella the ancient capital of Menorca

Menorca in general and Ciutadella in particular show Catalunya at its best. Actually we were in the Catalan countries/ Paisos Catalans rather than Catalunya but does it make a difference?  To me not much.
We were given the use of a flat in Ciutadella and were able to spend the evenings wandering around the old town

Ciutadella is at the western end of the island and we arrived here on the Balnearia ferry. You can also arrive at the other main city of Maó which is where we left from a week later, with Transmediteranea.

Ciutadella was the old capital of the island but the power has since moved east to Maó. A long fairly straight road joins these two towns which are about 45km apart.

Old stones hug you with their warm safe reassuring strength

Arched colonades call you to explore some more

Warm soft colours – everywhere you turn

Walking the narrow streets takes you into another world. I love curved corners

There is a ronda encircling the old town – this square of the two fat ladies is a good orientation point

 On the ronda a lot of the less touristy shops are found. There isn’t really much traffic on the road either!

 I bought my new avarcas here. Tried on three pairs and then….

 when you find the right pair they slip on like Cinderella’s slipper and you never want to take them off!

  An ancient olive tree in the centre of town – cars are banned from the old streets

The sculpture is by Nuria Roman The Awakening

 The Menorcan food is fabulous. The famous Ensaimada has pork fat in it but we still brought a box home

 I couldn’t stop drinking in the colours. Can’t wait to get back to art class and try to create them myself


 We did our main exploration of the town on our last day but I need to go back and wander some more

 Perhaps with a paintbox and paper instead of a camera

 Perhaps these stories of Menorca will tempt you to go there yourself – tell me when and I will come too!